Betty Crocker: The Dear Abby of Cooking

Just this past weekend, I typed the words “The End” on the first draft of my paranormal romance novel set in 1955.

Writing a story set in a different time period comes with a special set of problems, not the least of which is the research necessary to get things right. Frequently I’d have to mark text with the intention of looking up a phrase or piece of technology to confirm its use in the 1950s. Sometimes I’d wind up down the rabbit hole of research, discovering interesting tidbits that had no bearing on the story but fascinated me anyway.

For me, setting a story in another time period is more than just learning the slang or studying the clothing, however, both of which I did. It’s about attempting to understand the mindset of the people of that time, what their hopes, dreams, and fears might be. What makes them tick. That’s one of the greatest appeals of writing historicals for me. 

I tend to do a lot of background reading as a result, even if the material never ends up in the story itself. It’s there in the structure of the story, how the characters act and think. To me it’s as important as costume design or a soundtrack is to a movie. It sets the stage for the characters and for the reader to enter their world.

In addition to the Internet, I rely a lot on books about the various periods I’m interested in, hence the photograph above. One of my late purchases arose out of my research (and I’m still trying to justify it to myself): Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook.

Did you know there was never any such person as Betty Crocker? She was the brainchild of an advertising firm hired by a flour-milling company that eventually became General Mills. She was created as part of a 1921 ad campaign to solve a puzzle and win a pin in the shape of a bag of Gold Medal Flour. The response to the contest was unexpected–in addition to the 30,000 women who solved the puzzles, the company was flooded with letters asking baking questions. Betty Crocker was created to answer those questions and by 1950 was an amalgamation of the forty-eight women who worked for the Home Service Department of General Mills, the largest  customer-service department in the industry, fielding up to 2,000 letters a day to help homemakers solve a wide variety of cooking and baking problems.

The first Betty Crocker cookbook was published in 1950, became a runaway bestseller, and has been a favorite ever since. When I opened my copy, I recognized both in the layout and the nature of the recipes within all those old timey comfort meals I’d grown up with copied from those “Church Lady cookbooks” that every major church I’ve ever been associated with has published at one time or another. The recipes I associate with my grandmother and the holidays. Truth be told, that was the real reason I bought this copy of the original Betty Crocker cookbook, complete with all the salt, sugar, and fat of the old recipes. On her death, I discovered that my mother had given away all the treasured church lady cookbooks, and many of those recipes were lost to me as a result. Now I have them again. And with them, a little piece of my past.

By the 1950s, Betty Crocker was a callback to the past, a font of maternal advice that was missing in the lives of many post-war young women widowed or settling down with former soldiers to build families in communities such as Levittown.

Isolated in suburbia from the generational women who would have taught them the ins and outs of the homemaking, modern brides were leaving behind their mother’s old-fashioned ways and complicated recipes–and prepackaged mixes were replacing traditional baking. It only made sense for General Mills to produce a cookbook using General Mills ingredients and Betty Crocker as their substitute mother.

Another brilliant marketing move by the company was to remove powdered eggs from the mixes, instead having the homemaker provide her own eggs, which allowed the baker to feel as though she were ‘making the cake from scratch’ by contributing to the creative process. I confess, when I make brownies or cakes from a mix, I consider them “homebaked” desserts, and pat myself on the back as though I’d grown the wheat and ground the flour myself. Such is the rarity of my having the time to cook for my family these days. And that’s what Betty Crocker allows us to do.

That iconic red spoon and that readily identifiable signature was part of the brand that helped homemakers recognize the advice they trusted. The irony here is that my fictional heroine might be an even worse cook than I am–so she would definitely need this cookbook. Ah well, maybe in the next installment of the series.

 

The Power of Re-inventing Self

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a new set of characters. My heroine has been through some tough times and has come out the other side not liking herself very much and looking to rewrite her story from this point out. I’ve started a notebook just for these characters and this new series, but it’s still mostly blank. I’m in the homestretch of a WIP with a June-July deadline and I can’t allow myself to get distracted by the new-shiny right now. But her story seems more interesting to me than the one I’m working on and it wasn’t until this morning that I realized why.

I’m in the same process myself.

Yesterday, I did something highly unusual for me. I went shopping.

I dislike shopping in general. I tend to get sensory overload fairly easily, so an hour in a large shopping mall has me screaming for the exits. I also resent the time-sink. I have so little free time on a given day that to waste hours in a department store is just mind-boggling to me. I’d much rather shop online, which can be done at my convenience. The biggest downside to online shopping is returning something that doesn’t fit, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay so that I can pick out a pair of boots at midnight. Truth be told, I don’t do much shopping no matter what. I tend to make do with utilitarian clothing that suits my lifestyle.

Only I’m not so sure what that lifestyle is anymore.

For years, my life has been dominated by my work–both professionally and at home on the farm. I’m most comfortable in boots and jeans. I wear a lot of graphic T’s. I have jewelry, makeup, and dresses I rarely wear. I don’t really need to shop.

But like the first shoots of green breaking through the ground in spring, I find myself after several years of heartache contemplating change. I’m also realizing that colors and styles that worked for a young brunette with long hair no longer work as well for an older woman with a blonde pixie cut.

And yesterday, instead of coming home from work and starting in on the endless list of chores to do around the house, I remembered I have This Thing at the end of the month and decided to go shopping instead.

I didn’t have any expectations of finding anything I liked. To be honest, the mustard and olive green colors that seem to be in fashion this year don’t do a thing for me. Part of the reason I’ve always disliked shopping was because my Inner Critic has always been so mean on these outings. Not thin enough. Not pretty enough. No sense of style.

Well, the last one is a fair assessment. I don’t have a good sense of style. I’ve always chosen value over fashion, which means sturdy materials, doesn’t show the dirt, and can be worn at the barn without changing clothes first. A quick view of my closet looks as though I shop at yard sales. I’ve thought about trying one of those box set things where someone sends you a ready-made outfit, including accessories, each month. Kind of like meal plans, but for clothes. Given the lack of success I’ve had with the meal plan kits, however, I decided the clothing kits would be wasted on me.

But yesterday, not having any expectations going into it, I didn’t restrict myself when it came to trying on things. I tried on outfits I wouldn’t normally consider and found myself buying something that unexpectedly pleased me. I also bought clothing because it was comfortable and looked nice, not caring or stressing about the size on the label, which is pretty remarkable, considering a couple of hours in front of a full-length mirror usually reduces me to tears. Even more remarkable is that I’m significantly heavier and older than that young, critical version of my self used to be, and that alone should have been enough to make me despise the process. It didn’t. This new me didn’t give a rat’s ass. Remaking myself held more power than destroying myself, it would seem.

I also bought new makeup, refreshing my color palette and replacing products that should have been tossed years ago. I topped off the shopping trip with a stop by the ice cream parlor, walking out the door with a cone. To my surprise, I’d spent hours at the mall and didn’t begrudge a single minute of it. In fact, I came home in a good mood, better than it’s been in a long while at the end of a work week. Finally, I understand the phrase ‘retail therapy.’

This morning I spent an hour or so going through my closet and pulling out everything I knew I’d no longer wear, no matter how much I’d liked it when I bought it *cough* twenty -some-odd years ago. Or worse, the clothing mistakes: items with tags still in place that never quite made it off the hanger. Off with the old. Bring on the new.

It took me time to reach this point. I didn’t just wake up one morning and think, “I love shopping!” and want to be a fashion plate after years of being a tomboy. I’m not convinced I do love shopping or that I’ll wear my new clothing more than once or twice a year, only that I had a lovely afternoon focusing on doing exactly what I wanted without having to answer to anyone else. I suspect it could have been any activity that I chose solely for myself.

But the fact it was part of a re-imaging of myself was a scoop of ice cream on a hot spring day. No regrets.

Sharing Traits with Your Characters

Most writers are familiar with the saying, “Everything is grist for the mill.”

Our life experiences, especially those that brought us pain or had to be overcome, have a way of ending up in our stories. Perhaps not in the same form, but transmogrified to convey the same elements within the structure of our stories: the way it feels to sit beside a family member in the hospital, or to know your nemesis is waiting to beat you up after school. It’s there when we imbue our characters with the knowledge of what it feels like to be other, and when we give them the joy of knowing home and family aren’t necessarily the standard experiences.

Sometimes we base our characters themselves on people we know. Not directly, and certainly never such that the people in our lives could recognize themselves. It may be a prototype: a frenemy from your past, an encouraging mentor, a domineering parent, a supportive lover. What prevents these depictions from being two-dimensional characterizations are the little quirks we give them. On any given day, we human beings are a complex mix of conflicting emotions, drives, and desires. It’s what makes us interesting as people, and it’s what gives life to our fictional characters.

I’m not a girly-girl. I live on a farm with dogs, cats, and horses. My footwear tends toward hiking boots, usually covered in mud. I live in blue jeans and graphic T-shirts. I rarely wear any jewelry, makeup, or perfume.

But I love these things.

I have a major weakness for nail polish. Growing up, nail polish was one of my main identifiers of my not so readily apparent feminine state. Blessed with the ability to grow thick, strong hair and nails, I took these things for granted. My nails rarely chipped or broke. Hair clips frequently trembled and sprang open under the weight of my hair. People stopped me on the street and asked if my nails were real and what I did to make them grow so long and strong, and hair stylists joked about how I should stop putting Miracle-Gro on my hair.

Once, when I was opening a can of soda with my nails, someone asked me if anything ever broke them. I smirked and replied, “Kryptonite.”

When I was in theater, I had the best of both worlds–the ability to be my tomboy self 90% of the time and yet indulge in my desire to go all-out in costume, complete with makeup, hair, and nails. When we had our full dress rehearsals, the act of putting on the outfit, whether it was a period piece or something modern, transformed me into that character. Putting together all the outward trappings of my character was like slipping into a suit of power and I became the person I was portraying. It was a very heady feeling.

Recently, I’ve discovered the joys of having my nails professionally done. I tend to be a bit on the conventional side when it comes to polish. I like strong colors, and I adore temperature sensitive polish like the one depicted in the picture above. But I don’t have the patience for nail art. Durability is the key for me now, and while getting manicures is a pure indulgence, it’s one of the few things I do indulge in. With the advent of SNS powder, a manicure can last me 3-4 weeks now, a far cry over something that needs to be touched up every few days.

So it doesn’t surprise me that I gave this love of nail polish, makeup and vintage clothing to one of my characters. Another loves horses and rode competitively as a teenager. Still another has a secret girly side at war with her no-nonsense professional image for work. Another is a sci-fi fan, while yet another can sing along with every Disney Princess.

But while these traits come from me, those characters aren’t me. They’re weaker in some respects, stronger in others. They have a different story arc. Sometimes they’re more selfish, frequently they are braver. They react when I probably wouldn’t, and I’m pretty sure I can’t turn into a panther or a dragon (though I’d dearly love to!) So while I put a little of myself into every character I write, when you see one of my characters, you’re not seeing me. Just a sliver.

But the next time you read one of my stories and I’m describing nail polish, you’ll smile and know where that came from.

 

Wicked Wager Book Tour and Giveaway with Beverly Oakely

Wicked Wager
By Beverley Oakley

♥♥ GiveAway ♥♥ 
Beverley is giving away a signed print copy of The Duchess and the Highwayman during the tour. Please use the Rafflecopter below to enter. Remember there is a chance to enter everyday so be sure to follow the Blog Tour. You may find the tour schedule and locations here https://goo.gl/XTRwwr

About Wicked Wager:

Can innocence survive the machinations of a malevolent society beauty and a charismatic rake?

Two weeks before her nuptials to her cold, harsh cousin, virtuous Celeste Rosington finds herself in the arms of notorious libertine, Lord Peregrine.


The unexpected encounter is, at first, shocking, but as Peregrine’s charm weaves its magic, becomes a welcome distraction from Celeste’s troubles. Isn’t she already the subject of whispers due to her involvement in the mysterious disappearance of a wealthy plantation magnate? It was a role orchestrated by her demanding husband-to-be in which Celeste had failed spectacularly.


Nevertheless, Celeste has no intention of sacrificing all of her scruples for a man she knows is only toying with her. One kiss from handsome, charismatic Viscount Peregrine will surely be enough to give her the strength to fulfil her marital obligations?


But what if one kiss is not enough?


With her reputation in the balance, Celeste must navigate the treacherous waters of envy, intrigue and deadly secrets, unaware she’s the unwitting pawn in a wicked wager between a ruthless society beauty and delicious, dissolute Lord Peregrine.


Could Peregrine really be a party to such perfidious plans? Will his reckless charm be the final undoing of a young woman once respected for her virtue and piety?


Or will Peregrine discover that true love is more powerful than greed and ambition in time to save Celeste from the terrible fate that otherwise awaits her?

Genre: Georgian Historical Romance

Buy Links:

~♥~♥~♥~♥~♥~

Excerpt:

The last of the applause drifted away and for a few seconds the shrill cries of the orange sellers held sway. Rising from his ironic bow for the benefit of his companion, Lord Peregrine held back the red velvet curtain that had afforded them privacy so that Xenia could pass through and join the throng of theatregoers descending the sweeping staircase.

He saw that she had fallen into conversation with a club-footed general whose more than interested eye swept appraisingly over Xenia’s abundant assets, and once again Perry felt again the familiar heating of his loins that only Xenia could inspire with a mere incendiary glance.
The contours of her sack-back gown, adorned with a row of bows the length of her stomacher, recalled the more lascivious of those thoughts he’d entertained for the past decade: what it would be like to undress her, layer by layer by layer. He could only imagine how many layers there might be, but the prize would be worth the exquisite torture of restraint. He’d not revealed quite how much her proposition tonight had taken him by surprise, and the fact he’d agreed fuelled him with an odd combination of conflicting sensations: raging lust tempered by the knowledge that he’d just sunk to depths of moral depravity that might make even his uncle squirm in his grave: seduce an innocent on the eve of her nuptials.

Except that Xenia maintained the young woman’s ingenuousness was a ploy. Still, Miss Rosington retained her standing in society as a paragon of virtue. What right had he to assume otherwise, just because it was convenient?

He was diverted by a squeal to his left. Xenia was moving ahead, caught up by the crowd, her head bent to absorb the admiration of her club-footed general. Peregrine meanwhile found himself unable to continue, due to the fact the young woman in front of him had snagged her skirts on what appeared to be a nail or splinter protruding from one of the supporting beams. No one could move until she’d freed herself, and as Peregrine was directly behind her it was incumbent upon him to act the gentlemen and so enable the rest of the pulsing crowd to forge ahead.

‘Please be careful, sir, it’ll tear and it’s the first time I’ve worn it,’ the young woman warned as he took a handful of stiff silk in one hand. ‘It’s my finest.’ She twisted her head round to address him.
As her lips parted, revealing a set of near perfect small white teeth, and her worried blue eyes bored into his, Peregrine felt a jolt of something unidentifiable plummet like a stone to the pit of his stomach. No, further than that, for without a doubt his groin was reacting with something akin to roiling hunger. And, surprisingly, with an intensity that exceeded the dull throb of ten years of wanting Xenia like a frustrated schoolboy.

Close to, Miss Rosington was exquisite, her pale white and rose-blushed skin far more lustrous than when seen from a distance through opera glasses. Her powdered coiffure, dressed to fashionable heights, accentuated high, rounded cheekbones; and with growing excitement he followed the sweep of her graceful neck to a bosom that was rising and falling with surely greater rapidity than fear of what peril her gown might face. He liked to think that was so, as her candid look met his and the connection between them seemed like the sharp tug of some inner cord, forcing him forward, his hand brushing hers, nestled beneath a froth of silken furbelows, as they both reached for the undamaged silk petticoat, now released.

‘No harm done,’ he murmured as she drew herself up, her companion, the black-eyed viscount to whom she was affianced, returning to claim her, drawing her away with the barest of thanks.

All over in a matter of seconds, and at what cost? For while silk skirts and dignity had escaped with minimal damage, Peregrine was the first to concede, as he watched her graceful back with pounding heart and aching groin, that a great deal of harm had indeed been done.

~♥~♥~♥~♥~♥~

About the Author:

Beverley Oakley is an Australian author who grew up in the African mountain kingdom of Lesotho, married a Norwegian bush pilot she met in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, and started writing historical romances to amuse herself in the 12 countries she’s lived as a ‘trailing spouse’ (in between working as an airborne geophysical survey operator, a teacher of English as a Second Language, and writing for her former newspaper).

Her Scandalous Miss Brightwell series was nominated Best Historical Romance by the Australian Romance Readers Association. She is also the author of the popular Daughters of Sin series, a Regency-era ‘Dynasty-style’ family saga laced with intrigue and espionage.

Under her real name Beverley Eikli, she writes Africa-set romantic suspense, and psychological historical romances. The Reluctant Bride won Choc-Lit’s Search for an Australian Star competition and her Regency tale of redemption The Maid of Milan was shortlisted in the Top Ten Reads of 2014 at the UK Festival of Romance.

Beverley lives north of Melbourne (overlooking a fabulous Gothic lunatic asylum) with the same gorgeous Norwegian husband, two daughters and a rambunctious Rhodesian Ridgeback.

You can read more at beverleyoakley.com

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Dear White Ladies of Romance: We Must Do Better

I’m a relatively new member of the RWA, having joined in 2017. One of the first things I did as a new member was submit a story to the RITA awards, which is the romance industry equivalent of the Oscars. I confess, I didn’t pay that much attention to the process last year. It was my first time participating, and I had a lot of personal stuff going on as well. I had no expectations.

I also submitted a story this year. No surprise when I didn’t become a finalist. The competition is brutal, right? Each time, as a participant I was required to judge an assortment of entries–none of which were in my own category, paranormal romance. There was the usual mix of hopeful entries (like myself), the enjoyable, above average submission, and the occasional outstanding read. But this year, after the finalists were listed, I became aware of a furor among romance novelists on Facebook, Twitter, and the RWA forums. Like the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the same phenomenon has been ongoing in the romance industry. Not once since its inception has a black author won a single RITA award in any category. This year, five AOC finaled, which is an improvement over the stats of 2017, in which no AOC made it that far, but suffice to say in general, AOC are grossly underrepresented in these prestigious awards.

Conversations opened up on various social media platforms and forums, and naively, with the best of intentions, I waded into discussions on how this problem could be addressed.

What resulted was an eye-opening experience. 

I learned about scare quotes, and tone policing. Clutching pearls and white fragility. I would encourage everyone to read the articles White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement, as well as White Fragility: Why It Is So Hard To Talk To White People about Racism. If you are a white female author, I guarantee you if you are honest with yourself, you will recognize past behaviors. And if not in yourself, then you will certainly recognize these defensive traits in others.

I learned that it’s hard to discuss race issues with white people because since we’re the default mode, we’re blind to our own biases and prejudices. Worse, we tend to get hostile and defensive when the status quo is questioned because it threatens our position of privilege.

Some of the proffered solutions ran the gamut of eliminating covers and author’s names in the judging rounds (which would not eliminate bias against characters of color), or offering AOC (as well as GLBTQ authors) their own, separate awards or categories (as if that wasn’t totally insulting). Rubrics that held the judges accountable for their scoring were put forward. Some people thought the awards themselves should be tabled until this judging issue was addressed.

As the discussion raged across a wide variety of platforms, other elements crept in. A denial there was an issue at all. The suggestion AOC weren’t winning because their books were inferior or they weren’t entering in the first place. The bemoaning of the fact finalists weren’t even allowed a day to celebrate their nomination before the inequities of the system were yet again being addressed.

I found myself thinking of the “thoughts and prayers” offered after every mass shooting, and how it was always “too soon” to be talking about gun control after such an event. (See that? I made good use of scare quotes there.)

I found myself wondering how we’d be reacting if instead of white women dominating these awards, it were men? Would we be saying women simply couldn’t write a romance as good as a man? That not enough women were entering the awards? That we just can’t relate to a love story written by a woman? That we prefer to read romances written by men that feature men? As ludicrous as that sounds, I saw white authors, some of whom are Big Names in the industry, making just such statements about race, religion, or the sexual orientation of characters, as well as the perceived inadequacies of AOC of color themselves.

We’ve invited AOC into the building for the feast but have given them a seat at the children’s table. If they dare to complain, we denigrate their works, chastise them for their anger, and chide them for their ingratitude. All with a brittle smile and the suggestion that we should all “be professional” and above all, “be polite.” When in doubt, attack the tone of the complaint, thus rendering it invalid, right?

I reminded myself that like most women affected by #MeToo, I’m tired of remaining silent. Of swallowing my anger. Of living in fear to do simple things, like going to the grocery store or stopping for gas after dark. Of accepting that by virtue of the fact I’m a woman, I come in for a certain amount of harassment, discrimination, and even assault. And I haven’t experienced anything like what AOC go through on a daily basis, both at in general and within our own industry. Their anger is justifiable. And it should be heard, not silenced.

We keep wringing our hands and saying something must be done–and then continue as we’ve always done without making significant change.

I can’t speak for all cis het white Christian white women. I can only speak for myself. I believe change can only come through an acknowledgment of being in the wrong and a determination to educate ourselves to be better. These are the rules of engagement I’m laying down for myself now.

1.Shut up.

This isn’t about me. I am not the injured party here. If multiple people tell me my words are hurtful, it doesn’t matter what my intention was. It doesn’t matter what my “accreditation” is. If I’m beginning my defensive statement with a list of credentials as to why I’m not racist, I am automatically in the wrong. Because whether I want to believe it or not, I am racist. I can’t help it. I was raised to it by virtue of being born white at a certain time in the Southern US. My indoctrination might not be as blatant as some others, but it’s pervasive just the same. I will have to battle it the rest of my life. I can hate it. I can be determined to do something about it. But I can’t deny it. Not if I want to be better than this.

I was very, very tempted to include an excerpt from my latest story here as a kind of proof that I’m thinking about these things and trying to include diversity in my stories. I stopped myself cold because that’s part of the problem: the insistence I can’t be biased because I promote diversity of all kinds–religion, race, sexual identity, etc–in my stories. I don’t get a free pass because I write about open-minded characters from all walks of life.

You cannot change anything if you refuse to admit there’s a problem. You can’t change an organization or an industry if you refuse to change yourself.

2. Apologize.

If I say or do something hurtful, I need to apologize upfront. Heartfelt and not half-assed. Not “Oh, you must have misunderstood me.” A straightforward acceptance that I screwed up and owe someone apology. End of story.

3. Listen.

I can’t learn if I’m so full of my own self. Of my credentials in the “I’m not racist because” game. The bias is there, whether we want to believe it or not. The only people who “don’t see color” are the default winners in the race game. Everyone else has the color of their skin (or their religion, or their sexual orientation) rammed down their throats every day. Refusing to acknowledge color bias (or any other bias) is the equivalent of erasure of the marginalized group–and not in a good way.

4. Diversify my reading.

There is an easy way to expand my horizons, to learn more outside my middle-aged white woman existence. Yes, I love Regency romances that feature characters set in England. I cut my teeth on Jane Austen! It’s familiar and beloved. But genteel impoverished white women who get rescued by incredibly wealthy white men isn’t the ONLY historical romance story out there. Ditto contemporary romances, paranormal romances, romantic suspense, you name it. Likewise, racism isn’t just individual acts of hate and spite. If you’re an AOC, it’s the inability to find cover art for your characters. It’s deciding whether or not to enter contests when you know there is existing bias. It’s knowing if you made your character’s race ambiguous, you might sell more copies when your heart cries out against such a move. It’s knowing if you give your character of color a certain wealth or status someone will question the accuracy of your creation. (I suggest you read Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack on this subject,)

The more you know about someone different from you, the more you realize how much you have in common. Reading about those outside your experience expands your compassion and acceptance.

My personal experience is VERY narrow. I live in a conservative, rural, small Southern town. Ninety percent of the people I interact with on a daily basis are white. My white privilege blinds me to things POC must deal with every day. I’ll admit right here, I’m sometimes hesitant to include characters of different racial backgrounds in my stories because I’m worried about getting my depiction wrong. That’s not a valid excuse. It’s up to me to expand my own horizons. It’s up to me to make sure my writing choices aren’t hurtful. That I avoid white savior tropes. That my characters aren’t caricatures or stereotypes, two-dimensional cameos so I can tick off some diversity points.

If I’m concerned about ‘getting them right’, I’m not doing enough diverse reading. I’m not talking to enough people.

What I can’t do is assume that race has no effect whatsoever on the character I’m building, nor assume it is the only thing, either.

5. Support AOC and those in the industry.

As authors, we have the power to use and promote whomever we wish. In general, I’m not as good about supporting fellow authors as I should be. I need to rectify this by promoting books I enjoy and services I appreciate. Follow AOC on social media. Branch out of your “comfort zone” and take a chance on editors and graphic artists who bring something different to your table. You’ll wonder what took you so long.

I wish I could name each and every person responsible for enlightening me here. I’ve read so many posts on social media and forums this past week that it would be challenging to name them all–not to mention some of these posts were made to closed platforms, so I’m not sure how much I should share. I’m also not going to call out people who exemplify white fragility, or point fingers at those who’d rather maintain the status quo than manifest real change. This is not the post for that.

Instead, I invite you to take a hard look at yourself and the assumptions you make about AOC (or other marginalized groups) and the stories they have to tell. I’m betting you’ll find more common ground than you’d think, if you’d only give everyone an equal chance.

If you don’t know where to start in broadening your reading horizons, I ran across these resources for finding books by diverse authors:

http://www.wocinromance.com

http://girlhaveyouread.com

And on Twitter, you can use the hashtag: #weneeddiverseromance to search for authors and titles.

I’m going to be expanding my reading list. And though I tend not to leave reviews on Amazon (the whole pen name thing), I’ll be making better use of my Goodreads and Bookbub accounts to share my impressions of stories I love. I invite you to do the same.

 

Creativity, Gratitude, and Self-Care in a Dumpster-Fire World

I’ve been finding it very difficult to write lately.

I know I’m not alone in this–it’s a refrain I hear from many creative types right now. It has less to do with my personal battles with depression and more to do with the constant bombardment of horrific news–especially the mounting tension as we move steadily toward the US mid-term elections. These elections are going to prove to be a referendum on so many things: where we stand as a nation on democracy, diversity, climate change, health care, decency, equality, and compassion. The stakes have never been higher.

As such, I find myself creatively holding my breath, unable to concentrate on the WIP despite a looming deadline. It feels too damn frivolous to be carving out a HEA right now, even though readers probably need the stress-relief, temporary escape, and emotional encouragement more than ever.

And yet I believe in the transformative power of storytelling.

For a while now, Supergirl has been accurately needling social issues of the day in its writing. On the surface, the show is nothing more than a little escapist superhero television action, but at the end of season 2, Cat Grant makes an amazing speech on resistance and courage in the face of fearful times, and I fistpump the air every time I watch it.

 

It’s a powerful scene that fits seamlessly with the the plot without overtly hammering the viewer over the head with the message. It’s brilliant.

But the writers of Supergirl haven’t stopped there. In another episode, James Olsen shares an experience of being accosted and accused of a crime as young black child–an experience Mehcad Brooks had in real life when he was only seven years old.

And this season, the show’s opening montage openly describes Supergirl as a refugee on our planet–and the first couple of episodes have dealt with the growing hostility and suspicion of “aliens” living on Earth and a rising “Earth First” movement. Yes, it’s a somewhat cheesy CW show–but it’s tackling real issues and I applaud them for it. I was particularly struck in this past week’s episode when the AI’s shield that allows him to look human fails while he’s ordering pizza–and the resulting hostility on the part of the restaurant owner takes Brainy completely by surprise. He keeps saying, “But you know me…” while the pizza guy calls out workers with baseball bats to beat the AI to a pulp.

The imminent violence was stopped because one person stood up–a person, it turned out, who also had a lot to lose if her own secrets were publicly known. Who wouldn’t have been spared from the same violence. That’s courage. As is telling your boss that he needs to do more than ‘tell both sides of the story’, that he needs to take a stand.

And that’s what makes storytelling compelling. It’s what moves a program beyond the realm of ‘cheesy superhero TV show’ into something worth watching.

This is the kind of writing I want to do myself. I want to bring that kind of layering and introspection to a story that is meant for entertaining consumption. Because when we start to have compassion for the Brainys and Nias of this world, then we can see them as people in our neighborhood, and not enemies to be hated. 

But it’s hard when your creative well is dry. When fear and anxiety dominate your thoughts. I’ve recently come to the realization that I can no longer support this sustained level of outrage and horror. It’s not healthy. It’s not useful to anyone, let alone me.

In some ways, it means I’m still speaking from a place of privilege, that I can even say I need to distance myself from current events. There are so many who can’t, who are living the very events I find so appalling. But self-care and distancing is not the same as turning a blind eye. It’s saying that a warrior needs to sleep before a battle. That an army must be well-fed and rested before an incursion. That this is a marathon, not a sprint, and there must be breaks along the way.

So I purchased the little notebook pictured above. I can’t say that I really believe its sentiments, but I’m making a concentrated effort to find something each day that makes me happy–something for which I’m grateful–and jot it down in this little book. I’m cultivating a sense of gratitude in a field sowed with fear and poisoned with anxiety.

WE ARE ALLOWED TO DO THIS.

No one would expect you to eat tainted food day after day without making any effort to clean it up and make it healthier. No one would demand you willingly consume poison in sublethal levels when it’s possible to filter it (unless you live in Flint, Michigan, apparently). Yes, we should be outraged at what’s happening in our country and our world. But outrage alone is ineffective. And a steady diet of outrage will kill us as surely as the things we’re outraged about.

So I’m reading more and watching the news less. Taking a little break from writing and playing around with other forms of artistic expression, such as painting. I’m having my nails done, despite the fact it’s an expensive luxury. Having nice nails makes me feel good at a time when precious little else does. As coping mechanisms go, it’s probably one of the less destructive ones.

I’m also making a determined effort not to spread fear and hate. I’m of two minds over this–I think we should be outraged. I think we should be making our voices heard. To say nothing is to be complicit. But I also fear by pointing fingers at it, we’re also fanning the flames over it and keeping it alive.

Vote. Donate your time or money, whichever you might have. Overcome your fears and participate in the process. But don’t let the fear consume you.

Remember it’s okay to tell stories that are simply pure escapism. What may be a light fluffy story to you is what gets someone else through a dark time. It’s not a crime to be proud of your successes, and share your happy news. We need more happy in this world. 

On the back of my little “Okay” notebook is an awesome quote from Jane Austen. I leave you with that thought now.

I Dream of Strong Heroines

Let me start off this post by saying you know what I mean when I say “strong heroines”. I realize it’s not the best term: a heroine, by definition, is someone we look up to and seek to emulate. “Strong” as a descriptor seems both redundant and lazy somehow. When I say I’ve always been attracted to strong heroines–I mean the female characters that star in their own stories, who pull me into their adventures and make me long for their strength, their no-nonsense attitudes, their ability to Get The Job Done. 

They are smart, tough, and competent. They are all beautiful in their own way, as varied as their own backgrounds. They kick-ass. They make me want to be better than I am, to reach my full potential and more.

Growing up, it wasn’t always easy to find heroines in my preferred books and stories. Women frequently played a secondary–sometimes even tertiary–role in murder mysteries or sci-fiction. They were often love interests at best, and victims at worst. Television programs frequently featured a Heroine of the Week, a guest actress to play the part of the woman who is placed in jeopardy (all too-often by refusing the advice and help of the male hero) so that she can be conveniently rescued by said hero. I confess, I ate up these shows in the eighties. Not because I identified with the female characters in them, but because I identified with the men. Many of the shows I adored back then, I find uncomfortable to re-watch today. Men had the best roles, the best lines, got to do the fun things. I accepted that it was men who went on adventures and the women largely stayed home. Eowyn aside, the Fellowship of the Ring was a boys club.

But when I found a heroine I could admire, I grabbed on with both hands, even if the source material was a little problematic. Lessa from Dragonflight. Princess Leia. Harriet Vane from the Lord Peter Wimsey books. I wanted to be Laura Holt from Remington Steele. I devoured the Honor Harrington books by David Weber. Sam Carter in Stargate might have been ‘one of the boys’ but she was the scientist that was smarter than everyone else on team SG-1.

I cheered when Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella outsmarted the gypsies in this scene from Ever After.

 

It was simply brilliant–as was the scene at the end when the Prince rushes up as she’s leaving the castle. When she asks him why he’s there, he confesses he’s come to rescue her–only she’s already rescued herself.

This trend of loving powerful heroines continues today. I fell hard for Elsa in Frozen. I am a HUGE Peggy Carter fan (hence the T-shirt above). I love Phryne Fisher so much that I supported the crowdfunding for Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears. I love these ladies for their strength, their beauty, their abilities. I wish I had their confidence, their competence, their resilience. 

I am sadly aware I fall far short of their standards.

Recently, I’ve had a bit of a health scare. It’s rattled me hard, and while my condition is imminently treatable, I’m still in adjusting to both the medication and the notion that I need medication. More than anything, there is a disconnect between accepting that this is my new normal when it doesn’t fit with my mental image of who I am. It’s not part of a kick-ass heroine’s backstory.

Or is it?

Perhaps my definition of what makes a kick-ass heroine needs to evolve. Maybe she isn’t the woman who takes out the bad guys with a single punch, or patches a Stargate on the fly, or delivers a snappy one-liner while saving the world.

Maybe she’s the woman who works ten to twelve hour shifts, only to come home and take care of her family. Maybe she’s the cornerstone in a multi-generational household, the one that everyone looks to in order to make things right. Perhaps the very fact she’s still here, still trying, and still alive is a major achievement in itself.

Maybe she’s the one who speaks up even though her voice is shaking. The one who says, “No, that isn’t right.”

Being a kick-ass heroine isn’t just looking good in a catsuit, or solving multi-dimensional math equations while piloting a starship, or discussing with wit and erudition the dead body in the library. It’s both harder and easier than that.

It’s standing up for what you believe in, even when the rest of the world thinks you’re stupid for doing so.

There are more of us out there than you think. You’re more kick-ass than you think. Be your own hero.

Free Stories, Upcoming Releases, and More!

Because it’s a national holiday here in the US, I’ve opted to move WIP Wed to next week–so be sure to come back to participate then!

I’m considering starting a New Release Saturday as well–where people can drop in and share what they have that’s about to come out–what do you think?

In the meantime, I’m in the final edits on Ghost of a Chance, the next standalone in the Redclaw Security series.

I can’t wait to share this one with you! I see a lot of similarities between Sarah and myself: we’re both fangirls and we grew up frequently hearing how we fell short on expectations. Part of Sarah’s journey will be to recognize her self-worth, and discovering things some people see as flaws can be your biggest strengths.

As part of the run up to the next book release, first Reclaw book, The Panther’s Lost Princess is FREE until July 5th,  so grab your copy now!

The Language of Romance Novels: Sweet and Sensual vs Hot and Steamy?

I’m in the process of making up a bunch of promotional posts in advance for a fest I’m doing in July, and one of the prompts was “Sweet and Steamy or Hot and Heavy?”

Which got me to thinking about the kinds of things I like in my romances.

I live for the slow burn romance. I want to watch the characters get to know each other, overcome obstacles (personal or otherwise) to be together, work for the reward–which is usually a sex scene but not always. Sex can take place at any point in the story, but I tend to prefer the slow burn where the characters lead up to it over time. I also enjoy it when sex doesn’t prove to be the magic solution to their relationship issues–that it frequently complicates things before the characters get it sorted out. As both a reader and a writer, it’s part of the payoff for being invested in the relationship.

But I was a bit bothered by the terms here: sweet vs hot. Or sometimes it’s ‘clean vs spicy’. These are terms the romance industry uses to help readers determine how much sex is in their stories, and most of the time, that subtle warning system works for me. Kind of like how I know what to expect when I go see a Star Trek movie in terms of violence and sex (which is why I’m a HARD PASS on a Tarantino-directed R rated Star Trek Movie. No Just. Ugh. No.)

“Clean” to denote a romance where the sex takes place behind closed doors/off-stage makes me stabby. I resent the implication sex is somehow dirty if depicted on page. “Spicy” makes me stabby too. It’s feels like a euphemism because we’re not grown up enough to say the ‘naughty’ words. Mind you, I understand why authors feel compelled to use these terms–it’s because even if the audience doesn’t explicitly know what they mean with reference to the story, the meaning is implied well enough that they can guess.

“Sweet” is marginally better. It’s clear where the industry is going with this–a one-word term to instantly identify the heat level of a story to a reader–especially since heat levels mean different things to different people. Sweet doesn’t mean there can’t be any sex at all during the story (though sometimes that’s the case). It’s just when it does occur, it takes place off-screen. There are times when that’s exactly the kind of story I’m looking for, and it’s nice to know nice to know in advance what you’re getting. Likewise when I read a blurb for a Regency romance that states the heroine is a widow, it’s pretty much a given there will be sex between the main characters. As long as there isn’t a bunch of teasing with long, complicated reasons as to why the characters never have sex at all, I’m okay with the fade-to-black scenes. If the characters are demonstrably showing passion for one another but that passion never takes place–either on screen or implied–then I tend to get a little cranky. Unfortunately, “sweet” as a term to describe stories with no on screen sex makes me think of a vapid, usually blonde heroine who hasn’t a clue–or else a story so full of saccharine it makes my teeth ache to contemplate reading it.

But recently I’ve read some wonderful stories that could have technically described as sweet, but the lead-up to the closed door was so romantic, so passionate, so sensual that I didn’t miss the actual sex at all. And yet “sweet” is hardly the term I’d use to describe these stories. The scenes were as hot as any graphic sex scene I’ve ever read–right up to the point where the door was closed and we return the following morning.

Are there better terms out there? I wonder because my own feelings toward the sex scenes I’m writing is evolving. Paranormal romance is a genre that tends to demand a lot of sex scenes, in some cases, the more raw and “hot” the better. Being a slow burn kind of gal, I include much less sex than some readers expect. I lean more toward the sensual than “hot”. But I suspect those lines blur for many readers, as do writers, too. Sometimes sensual becomes hot and vice versa. If a story is described as “sensual”, will readers know what to expect?

Which is why writers tend to fall back on industry descriptors. But if you’re wondering, I go for sensual every time. 

Ten Things Writers Need to Stop Telling Themselves

More than any other group of people, writers should get the power of words.

Words move people to stand behind a leader. To willingly go into battle, knowing death is likely. To fight to protect the weak and innocent.

Words make us laugh, bring us to tears, and the best, the most powerful words, are engraved on our hearts. We quote them when we need strength, or to show love, or evoke sympathy.

So why do we as writers so often neglect the power of words when it comes to our own work, our own self–esteem?

It’s not just writers. I’d hazard to say it’s a widespread problem–perhaps a little more so among women than men. It’s not that men don’t internally belittle themselves, but I believe many more women are raised to verbally–and publicly–abuse themselves than not. Call it what you like. An appealing ‘humility’ or whatever. The truth of the matter is many of us constantly run ourselves down and we are scarcely aware that we’re doing it.

Lately, I’ve been running into all kinds of conversations, blog posts, and Twitter threads about the power of words and why in particular, we as writers shouldn’t denigrate our work and abilities, lest the repetition of our negative words becomes the truth. I understand this concept, but like knowing I should eat vegetables and choosing pizza instead, positive affirmations are difficult for me.

I grew up in a religious household. Many religions drum into you your lack of worthiness as part of your need to be redeemed. Most religions are patriarchal in nature, which adds an additional layer of unworthiness if you happen to be female. My family was also full of over-achievers. Doctors, nurses, psychologists, pastors… if you weren’t giving back to society in some way, you weren’t worthy. Standards were often impossibly out of reach. If I brought home less than straight A’s from school, I was under-performing to the family standard. If I got straight A’s, well, anyone could get straight A’s at a public school.

So reading books like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was encouraged. But even as I read it, a burning resentment smoldered inside. Thinking positively wouldn’t get you out of a bad situation. It wasn’t going to cure chronic illness, or make you smarter, prettier, more talented. I read the book and rejected the message.

Same with the body positivity movement. No, I’m not saying the movement is wrong. I think it’s high time we rejected the fashion industry’s standard of beauty (artfully enhanced by Photoshop, which means not even their own standard-bearers live up to the hype). We should all embrace the notion that women come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and physical ability–and not erase the less-than-impossibly perfect because they somehow don’t measure up.

But that concept of equality that I will grant to everyone else comes harder to me. Why? Because I don’t believe it. Not as it applies to me.

I’ve been hearing negative commentary about my looks, my intelligence, and my abilities my entire life. It’s still ongoing today: from my family, my co-workers, the man on the street, society as a whole. I have a book of ‘positive affirmations’ that is practically empty because I can’t think of anything to put in it that won’t make me roll my eyes and snort.

I get up in the morning and note the dark circles under my eyes and how my hair is thinning. I curl a lip at the roll of fat around my waist. I point out how unattractive I am, and how I should do something about it when I’m not so flat-out exhausted. I frequently say things like “I’m too old for this crap”, meaning “I’m at a point in my life where I should be treated better than this” but all my brain hears is I’m too old.

So I join a body positivity group, but drop out because I can’t complete the exercises. I routinely say things to myself I’d never say to a friend–not even a stranger, for that matter. I know better. But like Steve Martin’s character in Roxanne, I’ve perfected the art of running myself down so well, I take the wind out of anyone else’s ability to do so.

When Katie Masters (are you following Katie? If not, you should) posted on Twitter about not belittling your own work because doing so would make it true, I tried very hard to internalize her advice. I’m really struggling with that right now–on top of the never-ending loop of negativity that tells me I’m too old, too fat, unattractive, not sexy enough, not smart enough–I also bemoan the fact my writing is Not Good Enough. It’s not terrible. But it’s no where near where I’d like it to be. When I read stories by people who are hitting it out of the park, even as I clutch them to my chest because of the magic they evoke, I’m crushed because I’m not in the same league. Hell, I’m not even in the same country.

See, I’m doing it again.

And likewise, Neil Gaiman has said some wonderful things about writing, impostor syndrome, and comparing yourself to others. But when I went looking for a specific quote to share here, I fell down a rabbit hole of impossibly excellent quotes, which might just turn out to be a blog post all of its own. But suffice to say, enough people out there that I like and respect have been telling me to stop undermining my work. There’s a difference between self-deprecation and self-denigration and I think too many of us choose the latter thinking it’s the former.

Ironically, what finally made me see what I was doing was harmful was the far right. Um, yes. You heard me correctly.

See, they get the power of words. Make them illegal aliens, not people seeking asylum through legitimate channels. Call them rapists, drug dealers, terrorists, animals. Make them less than human, something you don’t want in your neighborhood, and you will turn a blind eye when they are rounded up and placed in concentration camps. 

It works because on some level, the people who believe these things want to believe them. It fits their internal narrative.

But one thing I’ve learned as a writer is we have the power to change our own stories.

So here are some things I’m going to stop telling myself. I hope you’ll stop saying them to yourself as well.

  1. I’m Not Good Enough. Here’s the thing, everyone has someone they look up to as better than them. Better parents, better writer, better friend, lover, person. There are people who are prettier, smarter, and more talented. All you can do is be the best you there is. That’s all that’s required of you. And it is a heckuva lot easier to do that if you stop beating yourself up at the same time. You may not be as good as “them”, but everyone is at a different point on the same path and no one else walked it the same way you’ve done. Cut yourself some slack–and keep walking.
  2. I’m not productive enough. What the hell does that even mean? Productive enough for what? To build a following? To make a killing on KU? Are you a writer? Do you put words down in the format of your choice? Then you’re productive enough.
  3. I’m not successful enough. Frankly, this is garbage thinking. If you go into writing because you want to be rich and famous, honey, there are easier ways of doing that. What are your criteria for success? A bestseller ribbon? Winning awards? Being featured in Oprah’s book club? Making a gazillion dollars? Your definition of success should be dependent on the stage where you are right now. Sometimes that means simply putting words–any words–to paper. Sometimes that means self-publishing a story that got rejected. Sometimes it means putting the rejected story in a drawer and coming back to it in a year or so to see what it needs to fix it. Sure, you’re going to keep moving the bar higher. Just don’t place it at unrealistic heights that discourage you from even trying.
  4. My writing sucks. Does it really? No, seriously, is it the worst thing you’ve ever read or are you just being hard on yourself? Have you eaten today? Taken a shower? Walked the dog? STEP AWAY FROM THE KEYBOARD. Take a break and do something else. Because you know this isn’t really true. You may not be as good as you’d like to be, but there are people out there who like your work, who (oddly enough) think you’re a good writer and they wish they could write like you do. I know, there’s no accounting for taste, but if you truly sucked, no one would like your stories. So just don’t even go there.
  5. I’ll never _____________. It doesn’t matter what you put here. Top the bestseller list? Win a prestigious award? Make enough money writing to quit the Evil Day Job? It’s both easy and true to say, “Not with that attitude you won’t” but the question you should be asking yourself is “Does it matter if I don’t?” If you have none of those things now, how will your life materially change if you never achieve those goals? Spoiler alert: it won’t. So are you going to let that stop you from writing?
  6. That one bad review is somehow more accurate than the fifty glowing ones I received. Ouch. Bad reviews hurt. But if the comments in a snarky review are outliers, then let it go. If you’re hearing the same things over and over again from beta readers, critique groups, editors (all of which should have assessed your work before you publish it), and readers, then that should be a heads up that you’ve done something wrong and you need to change it. But when you get that nasty gif-laden review that seems to come out of nowhere, keep this in mind: there are only two reasons why someone leaves that kind of review. Either they have a following because they are the Simon Cowell of reviewers–and therefore their fans hang on every gif with glee to see someone else be destroyed–or they want to make you feel so bad you quit writing. Are you going to let some soul-sucking vampire make you give up on your dream of telling stories? No? Then ignore this kind of review. Don’t read it. Don’t acknowledge it. Don’t let it have any power over you.
  7. My stories will never change the world. Oh cupcake, you don’t know that. Sure, on the whole, I would hazard to say most stories don’t change the world–at least, not in ways that we can see. Maybe there will never be theme-parks where kids of all ages dress up as characters from your stories and buy story-themed items, but I wouldn’t let that get you down. The vast majority of stories written won’t be read thirty, forty, fifty years or more down the line either. But your story can change the life of the one person reading it today. Maybe you gave them hope or laughter on a day they needed it most. Maybe you snuck in a little enlightenment and made them see things in a different manner than they had before. Maybe you represented ‘self’ to the reader who’d never before recognized themselves in a story. Don’t discount that. Most world changing events–for good or bad–happen in incremental steps over time.
  8. Everyone on social media seems to be doing so much better than me. Ugh. If you’re going to sit around comparing yourself to others on SM, just turn it off for a while. Keep in mind, SM is where people either tend to post about the best, the worst, or the most mundane in their lives. I don’t know about you, but I seldom feel envy at seeing pictures of what someone had for dinner–so let’s cross those out. That leaves the I won the lottery-went to the Bahamas-became a bestseller-lost thirty pounds without trying crowd vs the my life is SO bad you’ll never be able to top it crowd. Remember, those people going through stuff both good and bad are merely at different points on the path as you. You’re seeing a snapshot into their lives that doesn’t reflect anything else that might be going on. And the person with the new cover art/new release/award-winning story might be YOU next week, month, or year. Celebrate wins with your friends. Comfort if there are losses. But if you can’t stop comparing yourself, then walk away from SM for a while–put that time into writing the next story.
  9. My stories don’t matter. This is another version of ‘won’t change the world’ but on a smaller level. So I ask you, is it necessary for them to matter? There is nothing wrong with telling a story for the sheer entertainment value of telling a story. Don’t sell that short. It’s worth more than you think it is. 
  10. I’ll never be as good as so-and-so. This may well be true. On the other hand, I bet that author has someone they feel the same way about as well. Recently someone listed one of my couples among their top favorite pairing–along with my ALL TIME FAVORITE pairing in the same genre. No joke. I’d never been as flattered in my entire life. Never in a million years would I have put my characters on the same page–but someone else did. So maybe we aren’t the best judge of our work.

What it boils down to is this: words matter. The words we tell ourselves on a regular basis matter a lot. If we’ve spent a lifetime running ourselves down, we’re not going to change that soundtrack easily–the grooves have worn deep. But in order to change we MUST stop playing the old soundtrack. We must challenge lies whenever we hear them–be it from ourselves, our families, or people in positions of power over us. We must stop accepting negative feedback as being the only right message simply because it’s the message we believe.

I really struggle even saying things like, “that’s not so bad.” Believe me, I know how hard it is to reprogram your thinking. But I’m going to give myself a month of NOT running myself down. Of stopping the negative feedback loop whenever I hear it playing and countering the conditioning by telling myself positive things about myself that I believe every day. I think if I start with things that won’t make me snort coffee out of my nose, then I can progress to things I want to believe.

I challenge everyone reading this to do the same–and come back here in a month and let me know what changes you are seeing in your life. Let’s do this together.